Distinctive features include a low stance (known as kekuda, or ‘horse stance’), slow dance-like moves and fixed hand movements. Typical techniques include strikes and joint manipulation. There are over 1,000 forms of silat, and evidence of its existence dates back to the seventh century.
Some fight with machetes three-feet long, others are armed with daggers curved like the claws of big cats, while other combatants rely on only their minds.
This is the world of “pencak silat”, or Indonesia’s martial arts, which are now battling for greater global recognition — having secured a place in the Asian Games, the government is now hoping for Olympic glory.
They are held dear by many Indonesians because of historical links with the country’s struggle for independence when anti-colonial groups used the martial arts to take on the archipelago’s then Dutch rulers in the 20th century.
But despite being practised for centuries across Southeast Asia, pencak silat has struggled to receive the same international recognition as other Asian martial arts, such as karate and taekwondo.
The Indonesian government is seeking to change that. Pencak silat was featured for the first time in the Asian Games when they came to Indonesia in 2018. Officials then want to take it to the Olympics, and hope it could one day be recognised by UNESCO. Pencak silat is an umbrella term for a family of about 800 related Indonesian martial art forms. They are linked by their emphasis on defence rather than attack, and are characterised by fluid, dance-like movements.
Some styles use full-body combat involving strikes and grappling, others focus on fighting with weapons, while some involve performing moves as a kind of dance show with no contact. One of the best known is the “tiger-claw” style practised on western Sumatra island, where practitioners stay crouched down low to the ground as they take on their opponents.
Java island’s “Kanuragan” is linked to local mystic beliefs, and supposedly gives its practitioners supernatural powers including protection from attacks by weapons. Some “Kanuragan” experts are said to have proven their mastery of the style by stabbing and cutting themselves without sustaining any injuries. The style mixes traditional moves with specialised breathing techniques and is meant to help the body withstand strong blows.
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